21st-Century Book Banning: A How-to Guide

One of the advantages of publishing a book in the twentieth century was that it was much easier to get your book banned. Public denouncements of a book are fantastic publicity, and the outright banning of a book—well, that’s the kind of notoriety a writer can retire on.

Unfortunately, inciting the public’s wrath with a book is much more difficult nowadays. Not only have most people stopped reading books, they are already angry about so many other things that it’s all but impossible to raise their ire with mere words. If you want to spark a riot today, you need video footage and a dead body at the very least. Tears and screaming help, too. It’s hard for writers to compete with such raw displays of emotion and violence.

And yet, we must.  

The trouble is, disgust, dismay, and outrage are part of every American’s daily diet now. Also, Americans have developed an extremely high tolerance for deviance and immorality of all kinds. Back in the 1950s, D.H. Lawrence and Henry Miller got pilloried in public (and paid handsomely for it) by writing smutty books that, were they penned today, would be adapted as movies on the Hallmark channel. People no longer have any shame, and they are lazy, so motivating them to take to the streets in protest is a huge challenge.

What’s an aspiring rabble-rouser to do?

First, recognize that none of the old tactics work anymore. A healthy dose of pornography might spike sales, but writing about sex, no matter how filthy or acrobatic, is only going to inspire people to experiment. An autobiography full of lies used to be a good way to get condemned in public, but everyone does it now, so the novelty is gone. Saying blasphemous things about the prophet Mohammed can stir things up in certain parts of the world, but in America and Europe it just makes you look courageous.

Evangelical Christians can still be counted upon to put out lists of books that ought to be banned, but infuriating them is so easy that it’s hardly even worth it. All you have to do is write about two teenagers of the same sex kissing, or suggest that Jesus may not have had blonde hair, and boom, you’re on some Christian’s hit list. Likewise, a book full of racial slurs and insults might get a book banned from school libraries, but it’s just as likely to end up as required reading in the classroom. There are no guarantees.

Indeed, the bar for those who wish to test the limits of free speech has been raised spectacularly high. Consider: Germany recently decided to republish Hitler’s long-banned diatribe Mein Kampf. You know things are bad when you write a thousand pages of venomous bile, then methodically kill millions of people based on the sourness of that bile, and barely get banned for more than a few decades.

Now, it is still possible to get banned in other print mediums. To get banned from a typical magazine, for instance, all you have to do is write something vaguely critical about a major advertiser. And to ensure that your work never sees the light of day in a daily newspaper, all you have to do is use words that contain more than three syllables.

Getting a book banned is whole different story, though.

The biggest hurdle, of course, is the First Amendment to the Constitution, which allows far too many people to say way too much. But there are ways to use the First Amendment to your advantage—namely, by saying lots of outrageous, irresponsible things that piss people off just for the fun of it.

Another good tactic is to locate groups of hyper-sensitive, reactionary people and push their buttons like a claustrophobe in a broken elevator. College campuses are excellent places for this. Other parts of society may have grown more accepting of diverse opinions, but outrage and intolerance are still alive and well on America’s college campuses, so a visiting author, if he or she is lucky, can still get banned.

The reason this is still possible is that today’s college students don’t like to think about ideas with which they disagree. Unlike previous generations, today’s college students were born with the right ideas already implanted in their heads—the result of certain education programs initiated during the Reagan administration. But if you observe offhand to a college student that maybe they don’t need the expensive education for which they are paying—because they already know what to think about everything—they will immediately accuse you of bullying and “hate speech.”

This is precisely what you want.

Today’s college students hate “hate speech” with such red-hot loathing that they will audibly sip their Starbucks in protest if you dare trifle with their finely tuned racial and cultural sensitivities. Characterize short people as “taller-than-average leprechauns,” for instance, and you can expect a shit-storm of controversy. Suggest that alligators are smarter than crocodiles, say, and the campus crocodile club will lodge a formal protest with the dean and say all sorts of nasty things about you on social media.

They will not, however, show up in great numbers to heckle you. To get that kind of reaction, you have to convince college students that you pose a dire threat to their way of life—i.e., cushy dorms, easy classes, low expectations, cheap drugs, carefree sex, excellent workout facilities, 24-hour food service, no parental supervision—and/or that you will eventually hold them responsible for the stupid things they do in college.

Even then, there’s no guarantee you will succeed. The problem with college campuses is that just when you’ve raised public awareness of the threat you pose, and have coaxed a few kids to denounce you in the school newspaper and call for the administration to ban your appearance (what I call “the jackpot”), some other group of do-gooders will inevitably show up to defend your right to free speech.

Free-speechers are annoying because they think your rights are being violated. No, you explain to them, you want these students to hate you because you want to sell books—enough books to fuel a really nice bonfire on the quad. That’s the goal, you say. You could care less what students say about you, as long as they buy your book before tossing it into the flames. Unfortunately, free-speechers don’t understand how capitalism works; they’ve never had to sell their soul to survive.  

It’s all social media’s fault, of course. Social media has lowered the level of discourse in this country so far that principled rage is pretty much a thing of the past. Now it’s all just one big bucket of rage—at everything and everyone—so trying to cash in by stoking the flames of that rage by writing a disgusting, bigoted, blasphemous book is a loser’s game.

Honestly, you’re better off running for president.